The Gibson Girl is a familiar American image, considered to be the first ideal of American beauty. Created by artist Charles Dana Gibson, the Gibson Girl appeared in dozens of magazines and reproductions, becoming one of the iconic images of the early 20th century. Until World War I, the hourglass body and aristocratic features of the girl were considered a standard that many American girls wished to imitate, and a romantic portrait of feminine traits.
Charles Dana Gibson was the son of a working class family, taught by his father to draw during a long illness. He attended art school for a few years, before financial problems forced him to drop out. In the 1880s, Gibson was hired by Life magazine to do pen-and-ink illustrations. Despite his lack of a completed art education, by the early 1890s, Gibson was providing work for several major publications in New England.
On a trip to Europe to study art, Gibson met his own idol, the English illustrator George Du Maurier. Influence by Du Maurier’s style, Gibson began to create sketches of women. Though many social belles claimed to be the original model for the drawings, many believe Gibson was inspired by his wife, Irene Langhorne.
The image of beauty presented in Gibson’s work has its roots in classical work of the romantic era. She is tall, with a clear hourglass figure, usually cinched in by a corset. She clearly has long, flowing waves of hair, which are pulled back demurely in an upswept hairdo. Her nose and mouth are small and well defined, but her eyes are larger. She is characterized by high fashion and expensive clothes, the image of a well-bred young lady.
Within a few months of her initial public display, the Gibson Girl image was carried away in a storm of marketing. Reproductions were placed on every kind of product, from wallpaper to dishes and spoons. Some historians refer to the Gibson Girl craze as the inspiration for all later reproductive work, such as the wide variety of objects available with Mickey Mouse on them. From the turn of the 20th century until the war broke out in Europe, the Gibson Girl was the complete image of fashion, beauty, and social success.
Changing viewpoints on women may have lead to the downfall of this popular icon. While she might be portrayed as playing games with men and even winning, the Gibson Girl was not a political figure, and was usually drawn to express traditional female roles. With the rise of the suffragettes in America, fashion changed considerably. Long gone were the binding corsets, in favor of dresses that could be both short and shapeless. Sadly, the Gibson Girl looked like a relic of the past, surrounded by flappers and gangster’s molls.
Despite her fall from prowess, the Gibson Girl is a beloved American image. Until Gibson’s drawings became prominent, American girls were often a source of ridicule in European countries. Disliked for being forward, uneducated, and often gold-digging, the American girl was given a makeover through Gibson’s work. By combining the ideals of traditional female beauty with the spunk and wit of American youth, Gibson created a unique picture of the perfect woman.